Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a good story that’s well told, thoroughly absorbing, and spectacular in terms of production values. Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance are wonderful, with the latter putting on a subtle acting clinic for the ages, and the former reminding us how consistently excellent he is as our American everyman. The screenplay often times tells when showing would have been enough, but that’s The Beard for you from time to time, and it’s interesting to note the screenplay involvement of the Coen brothers on this project. There’s nothing surprising in terms of the plot – the film is based on a true story so there’s not much that could or should have been changed, and while the film never becomes as suspenseful as it might have liked, there’s a reliable, old-fashioned quality that comforts the viewer with a sense of solid familiarity. Janusz Kaminksi, as usual, shows off his stuff as cinematographer, bathing the film in blues, greys, blacks, shadows, snow, and his customary shafts of blinding, white light streaming through windows; this film feels cold and shivery, with the extraordinary production design by Adam Stockhausen totally evoking the bombed out ruins of post WW-II Germany, just as the Berlin wall was being constructed. There’s a magnificent shot in this film of a character riding his bike along the edge of the wall, showing the hectic maneuverings of everyone involved on a political, military, and social level, as the camera catches small bits and pieces of visual information that helps to paint a portrait of impending sadness. The narrative focuses on a POW/spy swap between the Americans and the Russians during the peak of the cold war, and Spielberg, as usual, knows exactly how to get the proper mileage out of his studied locations, fantastic mise-en-scene, and performances that are never less than splendid. Bridge of Spies the sort of film that The Beard could have directed with one armed tied behind his back, and that’s not a knock, but rather, a statement that suggests supreme confidence with this sort of historically rooted material; this is his genre and he knows how to deliver the expected goods.
Fascinating on a historical level, riveting when it comes to the sport being discussed, and compelling in a deeply humanistic fashion, Gabe Polsky’s terrific documentary Red Army examines the intense Cold War relationship between Russia and America, and the various hockey players that were caught up in an international saga of greed, hubris, and outright dictatorship. Literally kept as slaves by their country, Russian hockey players back in that time period were revered by all and had to adhere to an intense training schedule that kept them away from their families for long periods of time. All of their insane treatment is detailed in this sad and scary film that highlights just how difficult it would have been to be playing under the Russian coaching regime back in the 80’s. Red Army primarily focuses on legendary defenseman Slava Fetisov and how he and his various teammates navigated the politically charged waters of worldwide sport during a time of immense uncertainty and volatility. Fetisov is quite the character, and while he provides tons of amazing information and anecdotes, on more than one occasion someone should have reminded him that he was there to make a documentary, not just to have his ass kissed; there are NO off limits questions when you’re the front and center focus of someone’s film. That being said, the exciting hockey footage that Polsky intercuts with his intelligent question and answer sessions with some of the era’s biggest stars commands the audience’s attention, and this is easily one of those movies where if you’re not a fan of the milieu, you’ll still enjoy the film because of how well-crafted it is on a formal level, and how interesting it is as a history lesson. And for any hockey fan or past or current player (I was lucky enough to lace up for 15 years), this will be a fabulous way to spend 80 minutes. And if you’re of a certain age, the names and faces on display will bring back waves of emotion and nostalgia. I know it did for me. Mike Vernon POWER in there, too.